Timothy Asch - Director

Nationality: American. Born: Southampton, New York, 16 July 1932. Education: Attended California School of Fine Arts; apprenticed with still photographers Minor White, Edward Weston, and Ansel Adams, 1950–51; Columbia University, B.S. in Anthropology and Film, 1959; attended Boston University; Harvard, M.A. in Anthropology, 1964. Military Service: U.S. Army; traveling reporter in Japan, 1953–54. Family: Married Patsy Asch; four children. Career: Freelance photojournalist, 1954–59; film editor and cinematographer, Film Study Center, Harvard University, 1959–62; director of ethnographic studies, Educational Services, Inc. 1965–66; co-founder, Documentary Educational Resources, 1967; film expeditions in collaboration with anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon to document the Yanomamo Indians of the Venezuelan rainforest, 1969–76; research associate in human genetics, University of Michigan, 1968–70; lecturer in visual and environmental studies, Harvard University, 1970–71; film editor, American Anthropologist , 1970–76; adjunct professor of film, Brandeis University, 1973–74; research fellow in ethnographic film, Harvard University, 1973–79; research cinematographer, National Anthropological Film Center, Smithsonian Institution, 1975; lecturer, University Film Center, Hampshire College, 1975; film expeditions to document spiritual and ritual life in Indonesia, 1978–1992. Awards: Blue Ribbon (First Prize), American Film Festival (New York), CINE Golden Eagle, Grand Prize of Golden Bucranium (Padua, Italy), First Prize, Flaherty Award, First Prize, Festival Dei Popoli (Florence, Italy), Exceptional Merit Award, International Festival of Short Films (Philadelphia), and Grand Prize, International Folklore Festival, all for The Feast , 1969; CINE Golden Eagle, Red Ribbon (Second Prize) American Film Festival, Diploma of Merit, International Scientific Film Festival (Rio de Janeiro), all for Yanomamo: A Multidisciplinary Study , 1971; Red Ribbon (Second Prize), American Film Festival, Diploma of Honor International Scientific Film Association (Philadelphia), Special Merit Award, Athens International Film Festival, all for The Ax Fight , 1975; Red Ribbon (Second Prize), American Film Festival, CINE Golden Eagle, Bronze Medal, Film Council of Columbus; all for A Man Called "Bee," 1975; Grand Prix Bilan du Film Ethnographique (Paris), for A Celebration of Origins , 1993. Agent: Documentary Educational Resources, 101 Morse Street, Watertown, Massachusetts 02472, USA. Died: In California after a long battle with cancer, 3 October 1994.

Films as Director and Cinematographer:


Dodoth Morning


The Feast


Yanomamo: A Multidisciplinary Study


Ocamo Is My Town ; Arrow Game ; Weeding the Garden ; A Father Washes His Children ; Firewood ; A Man and His Wife Make a Hammock ; Children's Magical Death ; Magical Death ; Climbing the Peach Palm ; New Tribes Mission ; Yanomamo (for Japanese TV)


The Ax Fight ; A Man Called "Bee" ; Moonblood ; Tapir Distribution ; Tug of War ; Bride Service ; The Yanomamo Myth of Naro as Told by Kaobawa ; The Yanomamo Myth of Naro as Told by Dedeheiwa


Jaguar: A Yanomamo Twin-Cycle Myth


The Sons of Haji Omar


A Balinese Trance Seance


Jero on Jero: A Balinese Trance Seance Observed


Jero Tapakan: Stories from the Life of a Balinese Healer ; The Medium Is the Masseuse: A Balinese Massage ; The Water of Words


Spear and Sword


Releasing the Spirits


A Celebration of Origins


By ASCH: book—

With Linda Connor and Patsy Asch, Jero Tapakan, Balinese Healer: An Ethnographic Film Monograph , Cambridge and New York, 1985.

By ASCH: articles—

"Ethnographic Filming and the Yanomamo Indians," in Sight Lines , 1972.

With John Marshall, "Ethnographic Film: Structure and Function," in Annual Review of Anthropology , 1973.

"Using Film in Teaching Anthropology: One Pedagogical Approach," in Visual Anthropology , 1975.

"Making a Film Record of the Yanomamo Indians of Southern Venezuela," in Perspectives on Film , 1979 .

"Collaboration in Ethnographic Filming," in Canberra Anthropologist , 1982.

"Images That Represent Ideas: Use of Films on the !Kung to Teach Anthropology," in The Past and The Future of !Kung Ethnography: Critical Reflections and Symbolic Perspectives , Hamburg, 1987.

"Collaboration in Ethnographic Filmmaking: A Personal View," in Anthropological Filmmaking , edited by Jack Rollwagen, New York, 1988.

With Patsy Asch, "Film in Anthropological Research," in Cinematographic Theory and New Dimensions In Ethnographic Film , Osaka, Japan, 1988.

On ASCH: book—

Harper, Douglas, Cape Breton 1952: The Photographic Vision of Timothy Asch , California, 1994.

On ASCH: articles—

"Ethnography and Ethnographic Film: From Flaherty to Asch and After," in American Anthropologist , 1995.

* * *

Still photography was Timothy Asch's first love. He began photographing with David Sapir when he was a teenager at the Putney School, in Vermont, between 1947 and 1951. He went on to study photography at the California School of Fine Arts, where he apprenticed with Ansel Adams, Minor White, and Edward Weston. In 1952 he did seven months of photographic field work on Cape Breton Island, Canada. These powerful black and white photographs remained unpublished until after his death. He continued his career as a photographer for Stars and Stripes while in the U.S. Army stationed in Japan.

In 1959 he completed undergraduate studies in anthropology while working as an assistant to Margaret Mead. It was this connection to Mead that influenced Asch to take up film in the service of anthropology. His career took a turn in this direction, in spite of the fact that he continued to exhibit his still photographs from the 1950s to the 1980s. From 1959 to 1962 he utilized his talents as a film editor and worked at the Peabody Museum at Harvard University, where he met John Marshall and Robert Gardner. In 1961 he worked for the author Elizabeth Marshall Thomas in Karamoja, Uganda, among the Dodoth. His photographs from that time were published in Warrior Herdsman (1965) and he completed his first film from this material, Dodoth Morning (1963).

Asch saw film as a powerful tool to educate; he was one of the earliest proponents of educational reform and encouraged the use of film in the classroom. From 1966–68 he worked with Jonathan Kozol to develop a media-based curriculum for the public school system in Massachusetts. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s he was in demand by many universities, including Harvard, Brandeis and New York University, as a lecturer on filmmaking and anthropology.

From 1968 to 1975 Asch traveled deep into the rainforest of South America with anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon to live with, work with, and film the Yanomamo Indians. Shooting 16mm film in the jungles of Venezuela with native peoples who had a taste for intertribal warfare was not an easy task. From this experience Asch directed and produced his first important film, The Feast. Another film from this series, The Ax Fight , stands as a crucial work in the genre. In its understanding of the power of the vignette in film and in its concern for the truth and the accuracy of its representation of a society, it echoes the concerns and methods of Robert Flaherty in Nanook of the North. The Ax Fight , while simultaneously embodying the legacy of Flaherty, also prefigures the more self-conscious and experimental modes of ethnographic filmmaking to come. Asch's collaboration with Chagnon resulted in thirty-nine films on the Yanomamo which were distributed worldwide through television and international film festivals, and received numerous awards.

Timothy Asch did his finest work as a collaborator. After producing the Yanomamo series he worked from 1979 to 1994 with Patsy Asch, Linda Connor, James Fox, and Douglas Lewis on a group of eight films about the people and culture of Indonesia. His intense engagement with the spirit medium and healer Jero Tapakan resulted in a fascinating experiment in cross-cultural filmmaking. His last film, A Celebration of Origins , was perhaps his most complex and difficult work. It received greater recognition internationally than in the United States.

During the 1980s Asch was a pivotal figure on the international ethnographic filmmaking scene, building the foundation for the establishment of visual anthropology and ethnographic film programs in China, Europe, and Africa. In 1991 he was the keynote speaker at the International Visual Anthropology and Sociology Conference, Eyes Across the Water , held at the University of Amsterdam. In 1982 he became the director of the Center for Visual Anthropology at the University of Southern California, a post he held until his untimely death in 1994.

—Cynthia Close

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